Theology of Fields
We were small, and the grove seemed like a holy place . . . .
By Reginald Gibbons
As perfectly level as if created that way by God, the coastal plains around the city of Houston had once upon a long-ago time been the silted floor of a prehistoric sea. Before they rose into the fierce sun and dried out, sea plants gave way to plants of the air; years in the billions allowed gilled creatures to turn into ones with lungs and legs; and warm sea-blood ran in the veins of red men who traveled lightly across the new plains, followed by brown men and white men and black men who wore wider trails into the flat plains, and waged larger wars, and built low houses and seats of power made of stone. Then cement and oil transformed those changes yet again. In the exurbs of Houston in the 1950s, the as yet untilled fields where my family lived were in some places of a fine white sand and pale dirt, and in others of a pale pinkish-gray clay. (A mile away from our house was Clay Road.) Local deep pits yielded white crushed shells to the maws of digging machines. The muddy clay, when turned over in the damp sub-tropical air by a shovel or a plow or a bulldozer, still sometimes had a pale foul sea-stink, after a good number of eons.
The house in which I lived from the age of 5 till I left home for college, our “new house,” was like a last outpost on our north-running asphalt road that went beyond us, crossed a little bridge over a ditch and curved through the fields, and a mile or so farther on entered another place of houses. As children, we called our wandering in those fields “exploring”—out beyond the nearby space that belonged to us or to which we belonged. There were no cattle in any of the fields; in the nearest, a few horses wandered looking for anything green that might be eaten, of which there was little. On the parallel road a quarter-mile west, which also ended at the big ditch, behind our back acre, were more houses, older ones, some of them also situated on an acre or more of their own precious land, and there too was a last house—from that house, a mother and a daughter my age used to come through the small pastures, theirs and ours, to our back door, to visit.
The sun rose at the far flat horizon, shot light over the top of our across-the-street neighbors’ house and struck the front of ours, made a long day’s journey through the whole enormous sky, and set behind the houses and chinaberry trees on the road behind ours.
Our whole realm belonged to the sun, although rain clouds could shoulder their way in front of it for days at a time, holding its light behind them while they dampened or they drenched us. Perhaps we were trespassers in this realm of the sun, since scarcely any provision had been made by nature to give us any shade; by the sun and the fields, anyway, we were certainly not welcomed in horribly hot summer.
The city that was centered a dozen or so miles away had few clearly marked boundaries—in that time, like all times, of change, around the city on the plains veined with roads lay suburbs and settlements watching the city approach them, and venturing slightly to meet it. Compared with nearly everywhere else, where whites ruled, the black settlements were more isolated. But even if we children were unaware of any political, racial, or ecological boundaries as such, our neighborhood had a natural boundary that felt to us like the edge of settlement itself, and it was the edge of our own yard, at the man-made east-flowing ditch that crossed under our road. The ditch had evidently been dug or straightened in order to drain away the runoff from fields after heavy rains, to avoid the swampiness that was common in so much of the low ground around Houston. The necessary bridge—creosoted pilings and beams, gravel and asphalt road—was at the corner of our front yard. It had no railings. There was not much traffic over it, in the first years. Whether the water ran clear and small and we could see minnows in it, or the water was muddy and high after a big storm, to lie belly-down, in our hand-me-down jeans and T-shirts, on the bridge roadway—it had no shoulder—with our heads hanging over the edge and to watch the ditch current move, below, was to invite ourselves into a different state of mind—to float calmly over a darting minnow or water bug, or to get a giddy sensation of great speed from merely being still over rushing runoff. That sensation could for just a moment become its opposite, and even giddier, we felt we were leaning out over a rushing ship, or, on the other side, watching the churning of its powerful wake. When through the silence of the air we heard a car coming, we jumped up and scampered off the bridge and down out of sight behind bushes or hunching in the side ditches, if they were dry, that paralleled the road. We didn’t want the driver even to see us, and we waited till the car had passed before returning to our water reverie.
Out the back door we would go in serious mock-organized fashion (serious mockery being part of the nature of play, as of art), through the backyard to the back gate in the chain-link fence and into our unimpressive barnyard—or more accurately, shed yard—then farther, following the back-acre barbed-wire fence (“bob war”) that Daddy had strung (not especially tightly, having had to do it alone), till we stopped and went through the fence at some loose place and we stood on the ledge of earth outside it, our little cliff, over the adjacent ditch that we made exciting by imagining it so.
It was wide and flat-bottomed, about 8 feet deep and perhaps 20 feet across at ground level. Every year, the willow saplings came up thickly here and there along the bottom, where the current was usually not more than a shallow stream a few feet wide. When water was low, meandering slightly and clear, oozing through the mud here and there, and weeds and saplings grew thickly, the ditch itself was crammed with life to be known. Heavy rains raised the waters suddenly, and the great torrents after two-day storms would fill the ditch with a rushing current that stripped the leaves from the willows and even tore them out. Every few years a county work crew would arrive and cut back what the water itself had not destroyed. We might come home from school to find the small, rich, intricate ditch-world, which seemed to be ours in some way, harshly stripped and trans-formed, and we would feel betrayed by men who did not under-stand, who merely destroyed.
Mother did not worry about us. Trained as we were by the standard, repeated parental injunctions that applied at home as well as in the fields—to watch for snakes, not to fight with each other, never to hit one another, to watch for cars, never to play with matches, to respond promptly when called, no matter what we were doing, to eat all our food, to get ready for school on time in the morning and to come straight home—Mother had no need, in that day, to worry about us. We played safely in the mild little wild, whose denizens were snakes and horned toads and sometimes a tortoise, wasps and love bugs coupling in flight and mosquitoes, possums, and only a few birds—doves, killdeer, a mockingbird pouring out song and buzzes and squeaks at the top of a telephone pole, a sparrow pecking at the dried horse turds. There was not much habitat either for wild birds or as yet for town birds in a nearly treeless landscape. Around us, the ground, level as a floor, was a maze of sandy open stretches, dewberry thickets, yaupon bushes, prickly pear cactus, clumps of grass.
What marked our landscape as a realm apart, as more than mere property that had been scraped before buildings went up on it, as a place of potentially transforming experience for those low enough to the ground—like children—to be unable to de-mythologize it, was not, in fact, the fields in themselves, but the threshold to them, the big ditch that lay between us and them. So that every crossing into the fields was, although we could not know it in those terms, a minor myth of journey over intervening and sometimes dangerous water.
After truly great rains, when there could be so much runoff water that it climbed up to the very top of the ditch and then crept out of its banks into our yard, Mother strictly kept us in the house. The water was then the cold killing reality of every impassable river that marks the edge of what can be at least somewhat known. At the center of the current, the fast water flowed in roiled silence, muddy gray-green, but at the edges it came up onto our rough lawn and reached gently toward our house, toward us, as if greeting, inquiring, inviting. We could not tell where the bank fell away. Small children that we were, we felt the fascinating terror of it, but surely we could not tell what we felt, at the sight of this small sublime spectacle, this insignificant event of no concern to anyone. Together with Mother, we could stand on the concrete strip that was our front porch and watch the water rush powerfully at the center of the current, yet also lie calmly only a few inches deep over the St. Augustine grass of our front yard. In the swirling, eddying center, the stripped willow saplings were thrashing under the surface and bubbling it. At the bridge, where the water, perhaps 10 or 12 feet deep, sped just under the dark rough horizontal beams, the willow branches and other debris that had been torn loose by the flooding would catch in a sodden tangle around the center piling, and would shift and strain as the current both added to it and pulled at it, built it and unbuilt it. Down the current came twigs and tree limbs, trash, once in a great while a snake being swept helplessly along, holding its head up in the air.
We also saw the power in the sky, when the clouds were black and dark green, and gale winds blew and Mother would take us all into the central hallway of our house, shutting all the doors around us—living room, den, bathroom, girls’ room, boys’ room, Mother and Daddy’s room. She sat us down on the floor beside her and told or sang us distractions, and we waited, wondering, till the winds blew themselves out, if there would be a tornado. Those caught out in their cars during such downpours could scarcely see anything, and would pull over to the shoulder of the road and wait, or drive slowly hoping to keep the engine dry with its own heat. The sheer flatness of the plains meant that the places at risk of floods were where man-made roads and ditches dipped and drained the water into themselves. When the storm ended and Mother let us go out, we took the smell of ozone into our lungs.
Another scene of the argument conducted, in that seemingly uneventful landscape, between the sky and earth through us, although like the mortals in Greek myths we were unable to understand how the gods used us, comes back to me now. One fall, my father and his friend, taking both their families, set up at a weekend hunting camp a few hours’ drive from Houston, in a cabin in the midst of swampy woods of great tall gaunt half-leafless trees hanging with gray Spanish moss, and reedy sloughs booming and shrieking with the voices of frogs at night. Early in the morning, the two men went out with shotguns to hunt doves, and the two mothers remained in the cabin to feed all the children breakfast and to talk. The girls stayed near the women, but we four boys went out to perform nearby our imitations of our fathers’ hunting—stalking, tracking, exploring, without getting too far from the cabin with its large screened veranda. I was about 8; D, the older son of my father’s friend, was a year younger.
Like the mortals in Greek myths, we were unable to understand how the gods used us.
In the middle of the morning, the mothers sent D and me to the two fathers with some message that I have now forgotten. The men did not want to be interrupted in their patiently established violent stillness and quiet. D and I had already been shown what paths to take through the woods in order to find our fathers. We set out, feeling adventurous, and in perhaps 15 minutes came to them, moving slowly but of course intruding clumsily into the hush in which doves might be expected to land. Our fathers were irritated. Whatever the message was, it did not bring our fathers back with us. Having intruded on them in the demeaning role of messengers for our mothers, now we would return to our mothers as miniature men and inflict on them the reply of the fathers.
But a few minutes down the path back, at the big fallen tree we had leapt over on the way out, we came upon an immense snake, dryly shiny, sliding smoothly over the tree, a snake as long as either of us was tall, and with a girth like a boy’s thigh—too big to be a copperhead, not as dark as a moccasin (although they could grow as big as this), and not seeming to have the raspy tail of a rattlesnake, and absolutely terrifying. We yelled with fright and raced back to the men, rushing at them noisily and spoiling everything for them. My father was sitting on a sawed-off round of tree trunk of some felled or fallen tree, leaning back against a living tree. (He told me some time later that his luck had been so bad on that mostly fruit-less hunt that when he finally had a dove in his sights on a top branch, he had realized that a hawk was stooping on it; and his sheer irritation had been so great that he had raised his shotgun and blasted at the hawk instead of the game bird. Not hitting it, either.) When D and I arrived yelling, my father remained where he sat, but D’s father got up and followed us as we tugged him along urgently, wanting him to serve as hero for us and kill the hideous dragon so that it would not keep sliding soundlessly toward us in our thoughts. But it was not to be found, and D’s father did not believe us, and was very annoyed at us, and sent us back to our mothers with dismissive disappointment in our gratuitous tomfoolery. Not until now do I see that the great snake of that day—a wondrously frightening creature—could be understood perhaps not as a token of threat for our trespassing with malicious intent on a natural place, but as a token of honor from the earth to D and me for our service to our mothers.
Yet in not being believed, D and I felt, I think, that false witness had been brought against us. By whom? By the goddess herself, I suppose—the whole temple was hers, after all. She had frightened us with her emissary (while men were ineffectually gunning at those little dwellers of Sky) and then she had hidden its presence from anyone else but us two boys. We should have felt privileged but did not yet know this feeling. Never step over a big log; always step up on it and look down at the ground on the other side so you can see where not to put your foot, we had often been instructed.
So when once my younger brother and I, in our own back acre, small figures ceremoniously marching out the back gate of the yard, carried a sealed coffee can of our own small treasures on a procession to burial, enacting an intuitive ritual of secrecy, value, psyche, sacrifice, and worship, we were making an offering to the same goddess who had sent the great snake across the path in the piney woods. The snake-mind, moving over the fallen tree, had been a thought in the woods-mind, in turn a mood in the goddess-mind. Behind our house, in the flat treeless real estate of the fields, there was no such grandeur.
While we had to be taught to worship according to religion, every Sunday, we seemed to know how to worship, according to feeling.
Beyond the psychological significance of our burying of treasure, which we enacted with the unerring rightness of the unconscious, there was some cultural meaning in our rite. As if our sacrifice of what we valued were to the absent unnamed pagan goddess nowhere visible and everywhere present outside the house, in those days. While we had to be taught to worship according to religion, every Sunday, we seemed to know how to worship, according to feeling, without being taught. To pay attention to her, it, the dirt on the ground, the tracks in the dirt, the little things that made the tracks under the extraordinary sky, made us feel good, both senses of the expression. The goddess—I cannot find any better metaphor—was more present to us, in a million small manifestations of her humble emissaries of dirt and night that we could see but did not know to acknowledge as such, than the God who lived in the church and in heaven and who was always reminding us, through His emissaries, of our sins and lapses, our obligations to our elders, and His and their expectation that we would humble ourselves and accept what He had offered to us even though we did not deserve it—a redemption, somehow, through the death-sacrifice of His own child. (A child could be sacrificed, we learned, by his own father, who was above us. But a father, we must have felt, would never throw his own child into the flooding ditch, would he?) “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the Judeo-Christian sky-god text says (at Psalms 19:1), “and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.”
And despite the glories of the earth itself, I think that I and everyone I knew understood that this teaching meant that one had best look up, not down, when imagining the deity. After I reached the age of reason, this verse was reassuring to me, be-cause it seemed, to my still young mind, a simple proof of God’s existence without the completely unconvincing contortions and abolition of thought in the proofs and convictions (in both senses of that word) offered from the pulpit. And one does concede: clearly Sky is inconceivably larger and more grand than Earth. Even Earth’s tallest peaks are seen by many people only as places where one might get closer to Him. His attention, when on what is small, turns to the sparrow, creature of air. He, in the form of His Son, blasts the barren creature of earth, the fig tree, which has been unable to bear fruit. And the goddess who gives birth to us, who nourishes us after our birth, and whose face appears over us when we wake wanting her breast, seems to avoid showing herself again in the mortal mothers who bore us.
So the heavens infinitely extended above. But the fields below, when one put one’s eye at the level of a horned toad’s, as a small child can do, were infinite, too. Living was not in the remote, theologized, unanswering, paternal, vast, omnipotent, inconceivable God, nor even in his Son, who anyway seemed to have been both harshened and sanitized by the church, which in my fundamental experience looked away from His supposed affinities with thieves and beggars, harlots and cripples. Living was in the weeds and muck and body of the ground, and in the opaque muddy water of the ditch. So much so, that I was not sure that I, who did not like to get muddy, could ever be fully a part of living.
Everything in this earthly realm belonged in it, somehow; while every clamorous, triumphant attestation that God was “on our side”—in a war, in a game, in a trial of sickness or hardship—seemed mocked by God’s inscrutable absence from some other equally worthy nation, or team, or sick person, or poor miserable wretch. (For whom we were taught, as I am glad we were, to feel pity and charity, a tenet of the faith that would be nearly abandoned by those in my generation who became publicly religious.) God seemed to favor thinking in terms of enemies and others, and of triumphs or advantage over them. God had, after all, left very explicit testimony through His prophets and first biographers that He thought this way, and had acted in this way, and the examples in scripture were often repeated from the pulpit and in Sunday school.
We look up, we look down, we listen for a God apart from warfare, retribution, sacrificial offerings. There are, some believe, divine intentions that we cannot understand; we cannot under-stand what we cannot imagine; or divinity is indeed transmitting itself to us but is that silence—like a radio station, still testing its signal, which someday will suddenly sign on, but for now is sending out only paradox and silence at its appointed frequency.
The original meaning of the word “theology” is “writings about the gods.” Theology is texts. But perhaps all texts are about the gods, simply by virtue of being texts—even, or especially, those books which seem to have nothing at all to do with the gods but which do encode the secret idols and ideals of gods false and true on every page, the Gods and gods that rule our society and our psyche. Mammon, too, has his testament, known everywhere. Nearly all of us in our culture, even those who have only the smallest share of his triumphs, or none, are uncommissioned missionaries for him. And for a number of other still very active gods, including Mars and Venus, of course, whom we carry to every far corner of the earth, even unto the remotest fastness where Jehovah’s word scarcely reaches, whether under the immense leafy canopy of a tropical rain forest or in the long colorfully crammed aisles not of a church but of a store, or in the streets of a city in wartime. But of course the pentateuchs and gospels of Mammon are less well written than Jehovah’s (although some of those of Venus and Mars are wondrous). Yet more effectively than the Bible, or than any Buddhist or Hindu or Islamic or Baha’i or Zoroastrian or any other religious text, and like them, the texts of Mammon, in his fast-food temples, give us, just as the Bible does, laws and commandments, injunctions and prophecies; they also give us shopping advice and descriptions of new sexual techniques, the hypocrisy of politicians and the perhaps comforting idiocy of celebrities. They supply all the permissions for our wants that we can use, and more.
In some other long-standing traditions of belief, the earth may simply be given and immemorial, bearing spirits as well as mortals on its surface. Or it may have been created by a trickster who seems almost surprised at what he has done, and then, acting as curious as a mortal, he inhabits the world he has made, along with those whom he put in it. Or the earth itself may be a goddess. Or different goddesses and gods may rule different parts of it. But I might say that in the childhood of my God, that is, in my own childhood, He was the great landowner—if he did really own Earth as men seemed to own their yards and houses and wives and children—but gradually men replaced him, taking over all the available property, using it for their own purposes, making money on it. God’s dominion over everything, I could understand as a kind of ownership. Nothing in the teachings of my church happened to contradict this that I noticed, either in the fundamentalist pomp of morning service in those days, when everyone dressed up on Sunday morning, and in the strict classes for children, or in the evening at Youth Fellowship, where the program was informal. God seemed a mostly indifferent owner, represented by agents who promised and threatened on His behalf; yet He could, I was vigorously taught, interest Himself in noticing and punishing even a single child for particular sins, in a small church in an unincorporated area outside Houston, and in rewarding that child if he could “accept the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior,” and perhaps, but only after such acceptance, accomplish some act of goodness. In His youth of my life, He continued to avoid the questions that occurred to me and which I could not and He would not answer. In our maturity, His and mine (amid the infinitude—though not as great an infinitude, in this case, as of his heavens—of infancies and childhoods and maturities in historical time on our planet), He left it to me to think everything through and I couldn’t, while He continued to receive, around me, the childish sort of worship of creeds and sects and denominations without bothering to tell most of His worshipers that these activities must find a good end in them-selves. Did He not care about them? It is clear from the Bible itself that He was at first talkative but has not spoken clearly since the earliest recorded history of the worshipful and faithful. For intellectuals and artists, so far as I could tell, by the time I began thinking about such things as a youth, God was complex, riddling, inapprehensible, the source of godliness or goodness without any being of His own, absent while still existing or still existing while absent, even though for those among whom I grew up and so many millions more, then and now, He is jealous, exacting, omnipotent, and violent, supervising every life; yet He does not disclose His reasons for terrible and widespread suffering—from the cancer ward to the wet rotting hurricane wastelands, from the suburban bedroom to the steep mountain-valley towns shaken down by earthquakes, from the dark lonely city streets to the deserted, smoking bombed ones. All this, too, fills one with wonder—of the kind related to dread.
The unselfconscious wonder that I felt as a child, must have been my first experience of an opening of the spirit.
The unselfconscious wonder that I felt as a child, out in the fields, must have been my first experience of an opening of the spirit, which the later, socially prescribed learning of religious belief never matched. (Very early, I realized that it was by the chance of birth that I was being taught to worship this god and not that, in this way and not that, in this place and not that. Missionaries went out to teach worship in those places; the riddle of their needing to do so came back to me each time I was given their reports.) Like all small children, I practiced a pagan natural religion that had to do with needing the security of a nest but also being at heart a nomad under the sky and alone, out there in the fields, where I would go by myself, sometimes. Above, Father making his entrances and exits. And below, Mother offering the haven of her home. And the Preacher waiting patiently for me to reach the age when I might be Saved.
The only trees large enough to be worthy of the name stood together in a small grove out in the fields, a place we entered only once in a while, because we did not feel as free in trespassing on those particular acres, behind another fence, and also perhaps because we felt a kind of natural reverence. At our youngest age, the attraction of the grove was the rising within us, the slight intoxication, of that reverence, of a feeling of mild awe. Without any tangled underbrush, the close-growing grove of perhaps a dozen tall oaks stood over nearly bare ground. Here and there a low palmetto stood, the fanned-out blade-leaves growing from the ground. The tree trunks branched low enough for us to climb into the trees; a live oak branch can reach horizontally like an arm, and when we were a little older and physically stronger, one of us would tug on the end of a branch to rock it up and down while another rode it like a horse. Here and there on the damp earth grew a prickly pear. This open space with a ceiling of leaves was as defined as a great room and as sheltered from the sun. I cannot find words now for the sense of scale I felt then. These trees formed an irregular temple in which there was that unmistakable meaning to which the strict rectangularity of the tree-trunk grove of columns of such temples as the Greek had paid homage. Without prayers except in attitude, without gods except as some hint of the presence of what was not present anywhere else, we visited this sanctuary, this acropolis without an eminence, an architect, or a civilization; and leaving the grove, we entered the world once more, where there were cars and schools and chores, at-tackers and defenders of faiths.
A fierce loose dog, a chow, on our road chased me on my bicycle—as it had done several times already—and as it charged toward me across the road, a car coming fast on the road hit and killed it. Long afterward, I still felt guilty, as church teachings and teachers inclined me to do, for having taken great, albeit shocked, satisfaction, at the death of that chow, for having enjoyed the sheer luck at work in the world, which had turned good for me at that moment, and it never occurred to me that this chow’s death was punishment that it had deserved from something like a traffic-cop God who had arranged the event in order to save me. But, I would then contradict myself to won-der: Did He? Why? I could not quite believe, even that young, in divine interventions. Instead I thought my happiness at the revenge the dog had suffered for having terrified me was a sin I had committed, which God had of course watched happen and had listed against me in the ledger of my good and bad acts. My trespasses. When I invite myself to return to that whole time in reverie, it’s to all the other trespasses, too—I can feel with pleasure a kind of kinetic memory of our scrambling, with our quick, young tireless legs, across the ditch, through barbed-wire fences, into those fields-that-belonged-to-someone-else: fields through which we trespassed freely, although a little anxiously, because the idea of trespass had been so insistently drummed into us, beating at us both in church, where “trespass” was a euphemism for sin and wrongdoing against God and Jesus, and everywhere else, where the word was lettered on forbidding signs that warned of penalties against the violation of sacred private property. Without even understanding what trespass could be, we were anxious not to be discovered trespassing, accused of it, punished for it. So we could and often did ask God to “forgive us our trespasses.”
Mother and Daddy were not religious by nature, I think. I knew nothing of their childhood and youth, so different from each other’s and from ours, under different signs of belief—Mother’s eclectic and without rhyme, Daddy’s hard-shell and without reason. At supper, Daddy said a routine although not quite rote grace, and at the big special afternoon meals, too, that we ate at Thanksgiving and Christ-mas in the dining room at a formally set table. Mother in her JOY class at church (“Jesus, Others, You”) and Dad at his Men’s Prayer Breakfast added their separate dutiful religious study and their religious socializing to the hour-long service, when we all sat together as a family, and at which Daddy seemed im-passive and never sang, and Mother liked to out-sing others in her piercing soprano. They did not much mention God or Jesus in everyday life, as did the more emphatically religious adults in the church and in the neighborhood. When Mother and Daddy were in their forties and fifties, and we children were young, their friends were church friends, who came to the house sometimes for little parties. But I remember nothing religious about the parties. God was not invoked when Mother or Daddy punished us children, as He often was by other parents. Mother and Daddy did not transfer to God the blame that was theirs for their treatment of us, when this was harsh.
All the prohibitions were a forbidding or controlling or counteracting of Dionysian excess, but not exactly by an opposed Apollonian alternative.
When I was a child, I understood sins to be any breach what-soever of complete truthfulness, above all to adults; any lying; any disobedience of parents; any mischief knowingly committed; any violation of the Ten Commandments, several of which I could not yet understand, like those not to “covet” the neighbor’s wife or mule or to make “a graven image.” Was it that the image was “graven” that made it wrong? I wondered. When we were too young to be warned off drink and tobacco, we were warned off behaving badly, disobeying parents, lying, stealing, and always, always, against seeking anything whatsoever that would in any way glorify ourselves rather than God. Such would be vanity. But the Methodists of my parents’ church had met in borrowed schoolrooms for a while and then over several months had laid out and built with their own labor their own church, whose linoleum floors and simple interior seemed very grand if only because it was so much bigger than the schoolrooms had been. They were not so severe as the Baptists, to whom the girl next door belonged, who also forbade smoking, dancing, and gambling, including ordinary games of cards, and who practiced baptism by full immersion in a glass tank behind the altar, revealed when a curtain was pulled back so the congregation could see the preacher and sinner approach each other down a few steps, and see the sins washed away. All the prohibitions were a forbidding or controlling or counteracting of Dionysian excess, but not exactly by an opposed Apollonian alternative, for there was no aesthetic delight at all in the church to echo the ancient enthusiasm for beauty and proportion and restraint, and Jesus himself had been, for those who had made a religion of him, a kind of anti-Dionysian Dionysos. The ancient Christians would have outlawed dancing, if they did so, for no other reason than that it had already accompanied the rites of Dionysos, the earlier “son of god,” the earlier god of death and resurrection, of the natural universe (those unfathomable and glorious heavens praised in the Bible) and wine, who had preceded our Son of God.
And wine too was forbidden, in our religion, because drinking alcohol was one of the very sins condemned from the pulpit, even in our church of only moderate fundamentalism, so at communion the blood of Christ was a ritual tablespoon of dark purple Welch’s grape juice in a tiny clear glass that one took with nervous fingertips from straight rows of them across round shiny metal trays something like Chinese checkers boards. You waited for this tray where you sat as they were passed down the pews in the same weaving pattern that the ushers used in order to circulate the collection baskets. That it was grape juice was a deep and to a logical mind fatal irony (but not one we discussed in Sunday school, either as children or as young adults), since grape juice was in fact the un-transformed substance, and if it had not already been mysteriously transformed once already, from the juice of the grape to wine, how on Communion Sunday could it signify the far greater and mystical transformation from wine to the blood of the Son of God?
The snakes that the Dionysos-worshiping maenads entwined in their hair, two or three millennia ago, those appointed representatives of the mother in and of the earth, had inhabited Eden before man and woman did, after all. Their descendants were common in our fields and yards. Hognose snakes, garter snakes, small rattlers, and near and in the ditch, dark water snakes that looked like water moccasins (or cottonmouths, called so because of the stark white insides of their mouths, which they would open widely when hissing their threat to strike), and sometimes a moccasin, too, and once in a great while the rare and most deadly coral snake, and others. We had a kingdom’s worth of snakes. And toads and horned toads, possums, crawfish in the mud and water, tarantulas and black widows and countless other spiders we did not know by name, wasps and hornets, stinging red ants small and great, and birds that needed few trees or none, and the occasional farm animals, the horses that grazed here and there on the weeds.
Our exploring was not so much for real, although there certainly were places here and there that we never happened to tread, and we were never so familiar with it all that it lost interest, in those years of one’s most adventurous spirit, till the irrevocable thoughts of how one might be perceived by others began, the foreshocks of adolescence. Really, our exploring was a state of mind. We had to choose, and we did, spontaneously and easily, to regard the fields as unknown, in order to feel the excitement of pretending to know them for the first time. Wandering in erratic loops, we could make the fields seem endless. The smallest features of brush and ground were distinct landmarks. We were small, and the grove seemed like a holy place, although we would never have called it that, because we had no name for the experience of that kind of holiness. A name that anyway would have been blasphemous if we had known it.
I am describing the landscape, the figures in that landscape, of my childhood not as it was in itself, nor as it was to me then, but as the elusive, mostly lost, intermittently lit place it is to me now. It is like the ancient Greeks’ underworld of afterlife, Hades, populated by shades, and is itself a shape of shadows. In fact, Hades is a metaphor for how people and places seem to us, in our memory, irrevocably separated from us by time, so robbed of substance by that distance that they seem nearly transparent. Hades is our own geography of remembered sacred places that have since been destroyed by human and ecological change—in my case, extreme change of both kinds. I can envision shades there—myself and my brother and sisters, as children. But where in life we had some mixture of blood and ichor in our veins and our bare feet stood on the real earth, as shades we must walk unreal through real walls and noise and paved labyrinths as we follow killdeer tracks in fine white sand between clumps of wild bush and wild grass.
We wander across unreal fields that have disappeared and left behind them only a kind of memory religion without deter-mined creed or law or ritual but filled with faith in what, how-ever ordinary and unremarkable and mild—no mountains or rivers—is wondrous to us because it is beautiful or fascinating or frightening and seems, under that immense sky, to exist out-side human life.
Reginald Gibbons’s most recent books of poems are It’s Time (LSU, 2002) and Fern-Texts (Hollyridge, 2005). He has translated, with the late Charles Segal, Euripides’ Bakkhai (2001) and Sophokles’ Antigone (Oxford, 2003). His novel, Sweetbitter (LSU, 2003), tells of love and race in the landscapes of East Texas in the early twentieth century. A professor of English and classics at Northwestern University, Gibbons also writes a column on poetic thinking for American Poetry Review.